The Performer

The Selected Letters of Theodore Roosevelt

edited by H.W. Brands
Cooper Square Press, 651 pp., $32.00
Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt; drawing by David Levine

1.

Theodore Rex concludes in 1909 with President Theodore Roosevelt leaving the White House and pretending he doesn’t hate to give it up. People who stayed awake during high school history know better. Of course he hates to go. He is only fifty years old and his energy has always been volcanic. This is no candidate for a shawl and rocker, but a vigorous middle-aged man ripe for a bully midlife crisis.

He has always liked being boss, and nearly eight years in the presidency have strengthened his conviction that he is the best man around for getting things done right. What’s more, although a Republican, he has been moving toward political ideas that are dangerously unorthodox. Not a good omen, this. The Republican Party has been the home office of orthodoxy ever since the Union army and Yankee capital won the Civil War.

The party had suffered a traumatic shock in 1901 when the McKinley assassination confronted it with the nightmare of the party’s most powerful leader, Mark Hanna: an accidental Roosevelt presidency. (“Don’t any of you realize that there’s only one life between this madman and the Presidency?” Hanna had warned the party bosses who put Roosevelt in the vice- presidency, believing it a safe place to bury a damn nuisance.) Now as his presidency ends, Roosevelt is no longer Hanna’s lunatic but a popular hero, an internationally acclaimed peacemaker, and a remarkably shrewd politician. He has learned how to have his way on matters he is passionate about (a canal in Panama, environmental preservation, a two-ocean navy) and to compromise or let the party prevail on others.

Roosevelt’s transformation from “madman” to political giant is the central story of Theodore Rex, the second volume of Edmund Morris’s mammoth biography. The first, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,1 took T.R. from birth to the vice-presidency and the moment at which McKinley’s assassination made him president. With this book the biography now exceeds half a million words, and the final decade of Roosevelt’s life is yet to come.

The quarrel that will eventually shatter the Republican Party is not clearly inevitable here, although the potential for disaster between T.R. and the party has always existed. He is a passionately moral man inclined to righteousness in an age when party regulars consider it political heresy to pass moral judgment on methods by which men and corporations accumulate wealth. Their political philosophy is: Anything goes. During most of his presidency Roosevelt and the party’s hard-minded men have kept passion submerged, and the results have been good enough to produce a fine Republican electoral victory in 1908.

Roosevelt himself might very well have won another term had he chosen to run. He didn’t. Four years earlier, on the night of his landslide victory in 1904, he had impetuously announced that ”under no circumstances” would he seek another nomination. It was a foolish thing to…


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